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Make family time as important as work time

Amy Rees Anderson founded a media company that rocketed to success. She sold it a year ago for $377-million, anticipating that move would free her to spend more time with her family in Utah, but she quickly found herself with yet another startup, a mentor capital and angel investing firm. She has two children, and although now married she spent 11 years as a single mother, struggling with the issues of schedule and balance.

She has seen balance from various angles. She has also seen guilt from various angles. "Whatever place you are, whether at work or with your family, you are letting someone down on the other side," she reflects in an interview. In building a company or a career, she says the tendency is to err on the side of work. You figure if you are with a client, your family will understand. And, usually they do. But you are also losing out – losing time with your family, which can't be replaced.

She feels she is getting better with guilt – and balance – over the years. This summer she even took time off to be with her high school age daughter (her son is away on a mission for their church). "We get better with balance as we get older. Too bad we can't be better when we're younger," she says.

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It has to do with confidence. Early in your career, you feel people expect you to be at work and you lack the confidence to resist that feeling and its expression at times by colleagues. "You need the courage to speak up," she says.

So balance is an intermingling of guilt, confidence, and courage. And out of her struggles with those elements of balance has come some rules that she figures might help others, which she recently shared on the Forbes blog. It starts with scheduling down time – really scheduling it in your calendar – so your assistant and colleagues, if they have access to your calendar, know you are not available at important family times. And important family times are not just holiday get-togethers. It's everyday dinners, events at school, soccer games, and date nights. And in her case, weekends.

"If you don't block out your family time, others will take it," she warns in the interview. But the opposite is true, she insists. If you do block it out "everyone respects it and works around it once it's in your schedule."

When she started the practice of taking weekends off, it gave people in her firm some relief and assurance that they too could take family time on weekends. It intensified their loyalty to her. She told her clients that everyone needs "sacred time" with their families, and they accepted the practice. "It wasn't that people wouldn't understand. It was having the courage to say it," she says.

When you make rules like being home with your family on weekends or regularly eating dinners with the family, it's easy to slip. And one slip leads to another. You say you'll be home at 6 p.m., and soon it's 6:30 p.m., and then it's 8:00 p.m. It's important to be firm, with yourself and others. She says she has always been disciplined about protecting weekend time, but not quite as effective at protecting other aspects of her family and personal life from the demands of work.

It's also vital to cut out distractions that rob you of time with work or family such as television and video games – and in her case shopping online for shoes on, when she could be spending time with her daughter. "These are not bad things. But there are better things we can do with our lives," she says.

She puts stickers – post-it notes – on the offending technology or in prominent spots like mirrors to warn her to cut out these distractions. "Anything that is a distraction – a sticker goes up on it," she says. Even on the TV? Well, not now, she replies, because she controls herself, but in the past it had a sticker and might in the future if she succumbs to the lure again.

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She encourages people to outsource activities, wherever possible, practically and financially. She shops for groceries online and pays a $10 delivery fee, which she figures is less than the cost for most of us to take the time to shop in the supermarket. She found a local dairy that delivers to her house and also obtained similar drycleaning services. Obviously there are financial limits to outsourcing, but she says the key is to explore what's feasible – little things that don't cost much money and are far more expensive to take the time to do personally. "We don't have to do it all. It has to be done but it doesn't have to be done by us," she stresses.

Finally, take time for yourself. That's what she is weakest at. "Taking time for family I figured out. But it's hard to make yourself a priority, especially when you're a mom," she says. Something that helps is a blog she started at her former media firm, to share her values with employees, and that she has kept up, carving out time at the end of each day to evaluate what happened and draw some lessons. "It's me time. It allows me time to re-evaluate my life. Most of us don't take time for that," she concludes.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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